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Anything concealed from citizens, which also has absolute power over them, may be legal, but is not lawful. Do democratic states really need the secret services? 

Daniil Kotsyubinsky
16 July 2013

Laws are often unlawful - draconian, racist, mob or jungle. The Russian laws banning ‘the promotion of atheism and homosexuality’ being a recent example.  Laws can be unlawful, or morally wrong, and in different ways. What is clear is that the very work of the secret services in any country is absolutely predicated on such laws.

The best example of unlawful ‘spy’ laws is the drama of Edward Snowden, which is currently unfolding in Russia before the whole world, and very likely to turn into a tragedy.

It is essentially about a very simple conflict. A conflict between human rights — in general, and the rights of US citizens in particular — and US laws, which are the legal underpinning for the existence and the prosperity of the CIA, NSA and other offices or programmes which have been shown to regularly violate human rights. 

The clash is more suited to the theatre of the absurd.  Edward Snowden says, as it were, ‘The state which exists on your money and at your will and is bound to protect your rights, is actually flagrantly violating them. That same violation is being extended to the rights of millions of people in other countries.  I am giving you reliable information, which I stole from the violators and have revealed to the world.  Make use of it, people! Join forces and tame the secret service Leviathan.  Stamp on the viper which is preventing you from living your life.’

If one examines this case from the point of view of the law, then we are dealing with an undeniably heroic feat carried out in the name of mankind as a whole and each person individually. The man who achieved it should be supported in every way possible, and praised.

If, however, we look at the situation from the viewpoint of ‘spy legislation’, then we have a cursed traitor, a dangerous criminal – in a word a rebel worse than Pugachov [who organised an uprising against Catherine the Great], who should immediately be thrown into jail.  So others don’t get the idea of being a hero.

Who is supporting Snowden?

Modern states and their governments, democratic and authoritarian, are either confidently making up to the US or angrily biting its high secret service boot.

The paradoxical kicks in here. No real political force in the world – neither state nor citizens – has sided with the lawful.  Even those states whose citizens have been subjected to mass, unlawful surveillance by the NSA. The majority of them have turned resolutely away from Snowden.

Not everyone, of course. Some people have stayed on side. There are a few who have been derisively described by the ‘respectable press’ as ‘leftist outsiders’ and ‘anarchists’, but who can do little to help Snowden.  Secondly, there are a few states who, for various reasons, are more interested in making a point by queering America’s pitch, than in defending the ‘sacred and inalienable rights of man’. Countries like Venezuela or Russia, where human rights and democracy mean less, or very very much less, than in the US.

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Modern states and their governments, democratic and authoritarian, are either confidently making up to the US or angrily biting its high secret service boot. They are isolated from society and have already spent a long time in the rarefied poisonous atmosphere of Realpolitik, where the instant pragmatism of global calculations and interests have firmly pushed out any kind of decency.

Public opinion on Snowden's motives is mixed. Is this healthy cynicism or a reflection of advanced Stockholm Syndrome? Photo: (cc) Flickr/uniquit23

But why is Snowden either furiously denounced or disdainfully ignored by those people for whom he undertook his risky and courageous action? Why do most ordinary US citizens, whose rights were the first to be violated by the secret services, either strongly criticise (38%) or hesitate (29%), with only one third sure that the NSA ex-staff member who exposed the wrongdoings of his employers has done the right thing? Why do completely independent political strategists and commentators on public affairs not so much criticise Snowden’s actions, as take their comments into the realm of the personal with barely concealed hatred, firing off accusations of naivete, lack of education, inability to be a pragmatist, failure, ‘bolshevism’ and so forth?

Stockholm Syndrome

It’s actually all quite obvious. The Stockholm Syndrome is universal, coming into operation not only when terrorists have hijacked an aeroplane, but when governments, using the ‘battle with terrorism’ excuse, hijack their citizens in exactly the same way and hold them in unlawful captivity and fear of persecution.  In this case the secret services are the most important instrument in the triumph of force over right, and authoritarian laws over all officially trumpeted rights and constitutions.

[Russia and the USA] are equally focused on secretly violating the rights of their citizens…. A dolphin is not a shark, but the silhouette is pretty similar and both are predators.

The more a country has recourse to emergency laws, espionage and the ‘security of the service’, the less there is genuine or civil security, freedom and human dignity.  Russia was founded on the law of the ‘oprichnina’ [political and administrative apparatus established by Ivan the Terrible]. To this day its descendants, the secret services, function as the country’s brain, spinal column, heart and all other internal organs – enormously less public-spirited and democratic than the inherently democratic and federal United States of America (and more open to spymania, witchhunts and persecution too).   Nevertheless, despite the differences between the two countries, they are equally focused on secretly violating the rights of their citizens…. A dolphin is not, of course, a shark, but the silhouette is pretty similar and both are predators.

This means that for the body politic to develop such an unlawful canker as the secret police, it’s not only the authoritarian model of government (which doesn’t exist in the USA, of course) that is important, but the size of the state with its direct derivatives: a bureaucratic apparatus outside public control; a political elite, turned in on itself and stewing in its own unlawful juice; military and geo-political aims which are of themselves unlawful, and so on and so forth.

Do we really need them?

But how could we manage without our secret services, detractors cry?  Who will save us from war and acts of terrorism?  Protect us from unexpected aggression on the home front or from abroad? Who will provide the government with information for our salvation? 

Well, anyone actually.  Politicians, civil society, individual heroes, the police, the military… anyone. Just not the secret services.  ‘Secret police’ and ‘hidden threats’ are two sides of one and the same false coin. The secret services exist only because of those threats with which they have to do battle, which they’ll never manage to get rid of (nor, perhaps, do they wish to).

The secret services can go on and on catching terrorists and cracking down on them (‘whacking them in the outhouse’, as Putin so memorably put it), but new ones will appear in their place, they too will be wiped out…it’s a no-win situation. Because the reasons for any extended period of terror are political, rather than a police matter. Terrorists risk, and sacrifice lives – theirs and other people’s – not because they are such monsters, but because there are problems in society which have still not been solved politically and which the most radical opponents of the current system channel into terrorist fervour. 

History has shown us many time that as soon as politicians accept responsibility for taking radical and (very importantly) the right political decisions, the terror will, not instantly but fairly quickly, fade away. This is what happened when Imperial Russia’s Prime Minister Peter Stolypin succeeded in organising a working State Duma in 1906, initially comparatively successfully.  For the first time in many centuries of Russian history, there was freedom of speech and political life, admittedly fairly limited but still… It was as a result of this, rather than any secret police operations and acts of provocation, that society, broadly speaking, lost sympathy with the terrorist cause. The ranks of people with overheated views and burning eyes soon thinned out.

Terrors will disappear not when the secret services capture the ‘last terrorist’, but when the politicians take sensible decisions which deprive the terror of any political meaning.

This is also what happened with President de Gaulle decided to end the war in Algeria. Despite the battle waged against him by the secret military-terrorist organisation OAS (1954-62), quite soon not only the war in Algeria, but the anti-French Arab terror and the aggressive sorties by the ultra-right disappeared from the scene.

The Basque, Irish, Corsican, Tamil, Chechen terrors will disappear not when the secret services capture the ‘last terrorist’, but when the politicians take sensible decisions which deprive the terror of any political meaning. I am not justifying terror, but simply stating a fact: the secret services are neither the cure for all terror and other ‘hidden threats’, nor a substitute for sensible policies. Indeed, there are many examples in history when secret service intervention in politics has not helped but hindered both society (which goes without saying) and the state itself, of which that same service is a part.

The story of the reckless Soviet venture in Afghanistan, for instance, which arose from the conflict between Soviet army intelligence services and Yuri Andropov’s KGB, and was both provoked and planned by the latter. It is, after all, no secret that the war in Afghanistan was a factor in the enormously powerful moral, and subsequently political, crisis, which in the end brought the Soviet Union to its knees and drove it into the cesspit of history.

The 'special people'

The secret services are just as capable of being aggressive idiots as everyone else. The the idiocy of ‘everyone else’ is for all to see and can be quite quickly corrected, whereas secret service idiocy is invisible, and so more virulent.

It wasn’t only that individual ‘überspies’ made mistakes and miscalculations. It was the a priori inhuman and unnatural philosophy underpinning the work of the secret services, the presumption of villainy and stupidity as the basic qualities of human nature. People and societies are not only aggressive idiots: they can be absolutely clearheaded romantics and idealists. Secret service officers meanwhile are equally not angels or demons, but the same ‘two-legged with no feathers’ creatures as the rest of the ‘non-special’ people. They are just as capable of being aggressive idiots as everyone else. The only difference is that the idiocy of ‘everyone else’ is for all to see and can be quite quickly corrected, whereas secret service idiocy is invisible, and so more virulent.

In countries where the secret service culture swells to enormous proportions, the proliferation of secret agents impairs, rather than improves, the government’s contact with reality, casting it headlong into a world of denunciations and coded telegrams.  The absurdity of the situation is particularly well demonstrated when it’s not a question of wars with ‘internal enemies‘ — who could, after all, be turned into dust in the prison camps if the need arose — but when the secret services have to get on with their main task, i.e. ensuring the internal security of the country.

Take the eve of World War II, for example.  At that time the communist ideology was very popular in many countries in Europe, particularly in the home of social democracy, Germany. So Stalin had no problem creating a network of spies inside the Third Reich. This meant that throughout the months leading up to the war the Soviet leader accumulated such a quantity of contradictory reports that right up until the last moment he was unable to decide whom to trust – those who said that war was inevitable and would begin on 22 June 1941 or those who supported his own hypothesis that the Germans would never repeat their 1914 mistake and fight on two fronts.  In a word, the ‘too successful’ work of Soviet intelligence did nothing to help Stalin take the right decision on the eve of war.

Likewise, whatever information was (or was not) garnered by intelligence services, that the Cold War didn’t become World War III is no thanks to James Bond or post-war Soviet spies. It was simply that at the time no one wanted an atomic war – neither countries, nor peoples.

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Despite the huge resources and liberties thrown their way, the Intelligence services were not responsible for keeping the Cold war cold. It was the sober realisation that nuclear war would lead to mutual destruction that carried the day. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia Commons

Surplus to requirements

It’s a nonsense when a government elected by the people starts monitoring that very people

In the grand scheme of things, secret services are simply not necessary for internal security, nor particularly for external. So why, then, do they exist?  What are they for?  As we saw at the very beginning: to keep the authorities safe from their own people. To prolong the internal political status quo as much as possible, ensuring that the elites, who have dug themselves in and staked out their corners, can hold on to their ‘social stability’ as long as possible. We are actually dealing with government, rather than public, security.  This applies to Putin’s Russia and Obama’s USA and to all states where there are official units of  ‘knights of cloak and dagger.’

This thesis is extremely easy to prove. Secret services have not always existed. There were none in ancient times, for instance.  Athens, Sparta or Thebes had their informers and spies, of course, who observed the enemy and the movement of his troops, sometimes getting through enemy lines when war was imminent, or had already begun. But in the smaller city-states of ancient Greece there were no special divisions to spy on their own citizens. If anyone had come up with the idea of setting up an entire ‘secret service’ government department, he would immediately have lost his job, been ostracised or taken to court. For it’s a nonsense when a government elected by the people starts monitoring that very people. As if we bought a car, which suddenly shut its doors tight and took us where it wanted to go, rather than to our planned destination.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, when chemical weapons were deployed during World War I, it seemed to many that from now on this was how it would always be.  That no war in the future would be fought without mustard gas and the rest. I’m sure that the Realpolitik ideologues of the time adjusted all their calculations to include mustard gas.   But people, governments too, came to their senses and in 1925 signed the Geneva Protocol ‘for the prohibition of the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare .’ And, generally speaking, it worked. During World War II, which was much bloodier and desperate than the first, states were reluctant to violate the Geneva Protocol. 

It’s quite possible that when countries and peoples (and their governments after them) recognise, as Edward Snowden did, that secret services cause a great deal more harm than they do good, they will in the same way sign a universal ban on secret surveillance. And observe it.

But until this happens human nature, alas, will continue to have an unquenchable appetite for films and TV series about courageous spies, wriggling about in paroxysms of the Stockholm Syndrome, while sitting up to their necks in the political filth of Realpolitik and being irritated by the ‘incurable Romantics’ who, like Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, have had the nerve to ‘make a fuss.’

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